It Takes a Village to Raise a Leader

“You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist”   –Mahatma Gandhi

Let’s face it – someone living a solitary hermit life somewhere in a remote wilderness is hardly interested in leadership development.  Leadership by its nature is always in the context of interpersonal exchange. Over the many years I have been involved in the practice of executive development it has been clear to me that an individual executive can maybe change about 30% of his/her behaviour and the rest is highly influenced/constrained by the operational environment s/he chooses to work in.  I say chooses as there is always the option for an executive leader to change his/her environment that is more aligned with their beliefs and values thus dramatically increasing the potential of personal change. I think it was Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Das and author of Be Here Now back in 1971) who said “If you want to be a motorcycle freak hang around motorcycle freaks, if you want to be a spiritual being hang around spiritual beings!” The point is leadership development is a team sport full stop.

I recently collected some very comprehensive feedback on the effectiveness of a CEO client of mine and he and I were discussing the best way to leverage these data and emerging insights.  He was enlightened enough to know that the feedback was not just about him but had implications about his broader leadership team.  Being a person who wants to constantly expand his boundaries and push himself to leadership excellence, he suggested that we look at using the feedback to focus a session with his extended leadership team.  Brilliant. Conducting a feedback review session such as what he suggested is one of the most courageous things a leader can do to improve.  As he had a normal quarterly business review coming up we decided to simply invite everyone to stay for dinner and then conduct a feedback review session for a couple of hours after dinner.

There are a couple of important “signals” here.  Firstly the CEO had asked for comprehensive feedback (sample was 80 and included his direct reports, their direct reports, top talent and many others much lower in the organization) in the first place.  Secondly he was going to actually share some very personal results about his character with the top 25 executives who report to him through the various leadership groups through which he manages the company.  He knew this really wasn’t about him in a pure selfish way – it was about him role modeling the nature of an executive leadership culture and indeed a company he was seeking to create.  I have been involved in many feedback-focused leadership development programs where it was not unusual to hear direct reports, when faced with some candid feedback from others, excuse their bad behaviour and state emphatically that “I will change when s/he (their boss) changes”.  The CEO in my example pretty well took that excuse away from others with how he was handling his feedback.

The feedback exchange session we had was very insightful. While the CEO was exposing his vulnerability and shining the light on himself, he was also causing those in the room to, by extension, shine the light on themselves.  One bit of feedback to the CEO is that he can be too hasty and/or non-inclusive enough in his decision making.  The ensuing feedback exchange revealed that this was often a result of how unclear others were in their expectations of him when they shared their issues and situations.  As a result of the conversation he explicitly asked those in the room to be clear in their expectations of him when they are reviewing situations AND that pushing back on him when they don’t agree is wanted and justified if they don’t see things his way and/or have information he doesn’t have or understand.  Another very revealing insight from the exchange was how much of an impact the CEO has with the direct reports of those in the room.  It turns out that the CEO’s reactions, when he would sometimes spontaneously ‘think out loud’ or make passing comments were taken as “decisions” by these direct reports and acted on accordingly.  There were other such insights over the course of the evening.

The point is that the CEO, or any leader, is not a Vulcan who can read minds and accurately assess reactions.  Without an exchange like this with others how else is a leader to know how they come across. We will evaluate ourselves based on our intentions however others evaluate based on the behaviour and actions they see or hear about.  Therein lays a critical gap that must be closed with objective data and/or truthful dialogue and feedback. It really does take a village to raise a leader or perhaps more accurately it takes a team to raise a leader.

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